NFC South: Scouts Inc.

For the past month or so, the universal opinion in mock drafts seemed to be that the Carolina Panthers would take defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in the first round, the New Orleans Saints would take a defensive player and the Atlanta Falcons would get a cornerback or a pass-rusher.

But it seems like those opinions have shifted a bit in some of the mock drafts I’ve been seeing in recent days. The latest example of that comes in this seven-round mock draftInsider from our friends at Scouts Inc.

You have to have an Insider subscription to see the whole thing, but I’ll share the NFC South picks for the first two rounds.

Carolina Panthers

First round: Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle, Utah

Second round: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, cornerback, Connecticut

My take: This would be a coup for the Panthers because they would get two plug-in starters. But the key to this scenario is whether or not Lotulelei still is available at No. 14.

New Orleans Saints

First round: D.J. Fluker, offensive tackle, Alabama

Second round: Pick was forfeited as part of the bounty punishment

My take: I think Fluker’s more of a right tackle and the Saints need help at left tackle. I’d be shocked if the Saints go this route. After putting a horrible defense on the field last season, I think they need to use their top pick on that side of the ball.

Atlanta Falcons

First round: Justin Pugh, offensive lineman, Syracuse

Second round: Gavin Escobar, tight end, San Diego State

My take: I like the Escobar pick a lot. Escobar could spend his rookie season taking lessons from Tony Gonzalez and then replace him. I’m not sold on the Pugh pick. The Falcons have some young offensive linemen that can compete for the right tackle spot. They have a much bigger need at cornerback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First round: Pick was dealt as part of the trade for Darrelle Revis

Second round: Kawann Short, defensive tackle, Purdue

My take: The Bucs firmed up their secondary by adding Revis. Adding Short to a defensive line with a lot of young talent could make the Bucs special in this area.

Hitting the NFC South links

August, 31, 2011
8/31/11
10:51
AM ET
Time for a look at some headlines from around the NFC South.

In this Insider post, Scouts Inc. has projections for every team in the NFC. Their NFC South predictions look somewhat like what my season-preview predictions on Thursday will look like.

The Bucs have invested a lot of early draft picks in defensive linemen recently. But it looks like they might get big contributions from a couple of guys they once plucked off waivers. Frank Okam is showing signs he can be a run-stuffing defensive tackle. Defensive end Michael Bennett has moved to a starting job on the depth chart.

The Falcons have signed veteran safety James Sanders to a one-year contract. Good move because the team had almost no depth behind starters Thomas DeCoud and William Moore.

Jeff Schultz writes that Michael Vick’s new contract with Philadelphia could clear the way for him to pay back $7.5 million in signing bonus money to the Falcons.

Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton says it’s no longer about mechanics. He said he just needs to go out and trust the system.

Remaining needs in NFC South

May, 11, 2011
5/11/11
12:08
PM ET
Football Outsiders has this Insider post on the top remaining needs for each NFC South team now that the draft is over.

They list defensive end as Atlanta’s biggest need and that one’s obvious. The Falcons got their explosive player on offense, taking receiver Julio Jones in the draft. They need a pass-rusher and depending on the rules of free agency, whenever it opens, guys like Ray Edwards and Charles Johnson could be possibilities. I’ve also heard Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins tied to the Falcons a little bit. Jenkins has been a productive pass-rusher, but that’s not really his forte. He’s a big defensive end who can slide inside to defensive tackle in some situations.

Although the Panthers used to third-round picks on defensive tackles, defensive line is listed as one of their top needs. There’s even speculation that Ron Rivera’s ties to Chicago could lead him to pursue defensive tackle Tommie Harris.

New Orleans’ biggest need is listed as outside linebacker, even though the Saints drafted Martez Wilson in the third round. But Scott Shanle could become a free agent and Football Outsiders speculates that the Saints could pursue Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny, who could be a restricted free agent.

Tampa Bay’s biggest needs are listed as cornerback and defensive end. Although the Bucs just drafted Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, they can use more defensive ends because they had virtually nothing at that position last season. There has been some speculation that the Bucs, who haven’t been big players in recent years, could make a splash and pursue Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency. Although I suspect Asomugha is headed for the NFC East, I’m not totally ruling this one out.

Speaking of ways to fill holes, Scouts Inc. has an Insider post on the top 40 undrafted free agents. Teams can’t sign these guys until the lockout is lifted, but you can bet that every team has a list of guys it is ready to contact the moment the doors to signing players open.

What Bush's injury means for Saints

September, 21, 2010
9/21/10
11:29
AM ET
The early reports are that New Orleans running back Reggie Bush has a fractured right fibula. Reports are he could be out for somewhere from around four to six weeks.

[+] EnlargeBush
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe Saints don't really have a player who can make up for Reggie Bush's versatility on offense.
To get a better read of exactly what this means to the Saints, I turned to Scouts Inc. guru Matt Williamson.

“This is not good news for a guy whose whole game is based on his speed and quickness,’’ Williamson said. “He’s had leg injuries before and he’s never been a quick healer. Even when he’s come back, it generally has been at least a couple of games before he really gets into a rhythm. It’s really too bad because, going back to last year’s playoffs, through the preseason and into the start of the regular season, he was looking healthier than he had in a long time and he was running very well. This is going to hurt the Saints in a lot of ways.’’

Williamson said there’s no one person who can step in and replace Bush, who is used as a running back, receiver and a return man.

“Nobody else in the league has a guy quite like him,’’ Williamson said. “He’s so unique. He’s a running back who makes everyone else around him better and usually it’s the other way around. He’s so instrumental in making a defense declare what it’s doing because you can put him in motion and find out exactly what the defense is going to do. Now, it’s going to be a lot harder for the Saints to scheme things.’’

As a running back, Bush has never been a work-horse type runner and the Saints still have Pierre Thomas, who handles a lot of carries.

“As far as just the running game, they’ve usually used Reggie with another guy or two,’’ Williams said. “They’ve seemed reluctant to ever trust Pierre to be a true work-horse type, but they might not have a choice now and he’s going to have to step up because they still are going to have to run the ball and eat the clock. If they’re not able to do this, it’s really going to hurt their defense as well as their offense.’’

The Saints also frequently line Bush up as a wide receiver, mostly in the slot. Thomas doesn’t really have those capabilities and Williamson said he doesn’t expect the Saints to ask Thomas or any of New Orleans’ backup running backs to take on Bush’s duties as a receiver.

“My immediate thought is that they’re going to have to rely even more on their depth at wide receiver,’’ Williamson said. “That’s one of their biggest strengths and this injury creates a weakness. You try to fix that weakness by playing to your strengths.’’

That could mean even more playing time for Robert Meachem and Lance Moore, who are the top two backups behind starters Marques Colston and Devery Henderson.
If you have an ESPN Insider account, you might want to check out the latest from Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. He has a pre-draft breakdown on all 32 teams, which examines the front office, offensive philosophy, defensive philosophy and team needs.

Click on the Panthers, Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers to see what Horton has to say about each team.

Scouts Inc. ranks Super Bowl players

February, 1, 2010
2/01/10
10:22
AM ET
MIAMI -- Our friends at Scouts Inc. have ranked every player in the Super Bowl. That’s 106 guys.

You can almost surely guess who No. 1 and No. 2 are -- Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. But after that, there’s plenty of room for debate.

Here’s the complete list.

Saints No. 10 in scouting analysis

January, 7, 2010
1/07/10
4:25
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints might be the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, but they’re only rated No. 10 among the 12 teams in the playoffs. That’s according to our friends at Scouts Inc.

They came up with a system in which they rated teams at each position group and added up the numbers. In their system, Minnesota is No. 1 and Indianapolis No. 2. The Saints were ranked above only the Chargers and Bengals.

The Saints graded out pretty well at the offensive skill positions and with their coaching staff. But they didn’t score very well when it came to the offensive and defensive lines, linebackers and secondary. They also were ranked last in special teams.

Scouting report on Josh Johnson

September, 28, 2009
9/28/09
2:56
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


I don’t pretend to know a lot about Josh Johnson, Tampa Bay’s new starting quarterback. That’s why I called Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., who studied Johnson when he was coming out in the 2008 draft.
Johnson

“He’s obviously a bit of an unknown,’’ Williamson said. “I’m not going to pretend to know the backward and forward on him, but I think he’s very intriguing. He came from very small school (San Diego) and he put amazing numbers (43 touchdowns to one interception in his final year). He values the football and he’s intelligent. He doesn’t have monster arm, but he’s athletic. I was high on this pick when they made it, but then they turned around and drafted Josh Freeman and it’s obvious he’s their guy for the future.

“But they must trust Johnson with the mental part of the game more than Freeman right now. Freeman needs time before he’s ready, but I think Johnson needs some time, too. The good thing is he’ll be behind a decent offensive line and they have a running game that can be respectable.’’

Scouts Inc. on Falcons-Patriots

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
11:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


The fine folks at Scouts Inc. take an X's and O's look at Sunday’s huge game between Atlanta and New England.

The Scouts Inc. guys watch lots of film as they prepare these things and they give 10 detailed observations. They also gave an edge to one team or the other at each position or unit, and they do a great job, but I’m a little stunned to see they’ve given the defensive backfield edge to Atlanta. I haven’t had a chance to see New England’s secondary yet this season, but I have seen Atlanta’s and I don’t think of this as an area of strength for the Falcons.

I can’t share the entire scouting report with you because it’s part of our Insider package, but you can see it in its entirety by clicking here.

Scouting Panthers' QB situation

September, 16, 2009
9/16/09
1:38
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas


Like a lot of people, I can't quite understand why Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme seems to have suddenly fallen apart. That's why I called Jeremy Green of Scouts Inc. for a breakdown on what's going on with Delhomme.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Jake Delhomme threw four interceptions in the Panthers’ loss to the Eagles.

"I don't think this was all of the sudden like a lot of people think," Green said. "Look back to last year, even before the playoff game with Arizona. He had a couple of pretty bad games and that Oakland game really sticks out."

So even if Delhomme's slump isn't that sudden, why is it happening?

"This was always a guy that was a very good game manager," Green said. "He wasn't ever going to beat you with his physical skills, and now his physical skills are deteriorating. He's not even managing the game well now. It's like the game is going too fast for him. You can see he's not comfortable in the pocket and he's not making good decisions. He's struggling with his confidence."

Has Delhomme just "lost it?" Green said that might be the case.

"I think this translates almost to a speed receiver losing a step," Green said. "When that happens, it's over. Guys like Jerry Rice and Cris Carter could go on because they could beat you with things besides speed and some quarterbacks can go on as they get older because they can still do a lot of things well. Delhomme's a guy who has been at his best as a game manager. If he can't do that anymore, that's obviously a problem."

But Green said Carolina's best hope, at the moment, still is Delhomme. The Panthers just signed A.J. Feeley after backup Josh McCown was lost for the season with an injury, and Matt Moore is the only other quarterback on the roster.

"They have to get Feeley ready very quickly because he's the guy they'll have to turn to if Jake doesn't turn it around," Green said.”He probably has a better arm than Delhomme or Moore and he has some experience. But he's a West Coast offense guy and Carolina doesn't run that offense. Usually, when you take a West Coast guy out of that offense, it's a struggle."

Although Moore might be a fan favorite right now, Green said fans should be careful what they wish for.

"Matt Moore is a smart guy and he has spent some time in their offense," Green said. "But if you go back to what he did in college, you'll see that he has trouble with pressure and isn't a good decision maker. He might be able to come in and give them a good game or two, but he's not a long-term answer. He's a career No. 3 quarterback."

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

A while back, I asked for your thoughts on how the NFC South's linebacker corps should be ranked. You responded in force, but we still face an awfully tough call.

 
 Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
 Derrick Brooks may not be the elite player he once was, but he's still good enough to give Tampa Bay the advantage among linebacker corps in the NFC South.

After sorting through your responses and watching the linebackers of all four teams very closely, this is an incredibly tough call. I'm going to first give you my rankings, then run two very strong (and different) notes from readers that I think summed up a lot of your thoughts. Finally, I've asked Matt Williamson from Scouts Inc., for his thoughts on the matter.

Williamson's answer will appear on this blog at 6 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Anyway, on to my thoughts. I'd like to just say Carolina and Tampa Bay are tied when it comes to linebackers because they pretty much are. But I told you I'd rank the division's four groups, so I will. Here goes:

1. Bucs. Until watching Barrett Ruud closely on Sunday, I was going to go with the Panthers. But Ruud's performance against Adrian Peterson went a long way in changing my mind. He's closer to Carolina's Jon Beason, the division's best linebacker, than I thought. Cato June's a very solid player and I think the final decision was clinched by the fact that Derrick Brooks -- while not quite what he once was -- is still a tremendous linebacker and the best player in NFC South history.

2. Panthers. Again, this call really could have gone either way. I think Beason could turn out to be a Hall of Famer. I love what Thomas Davis has done since moving to the weak side and Na'il Diggs might be the most underrated player in the division.

3. Falcons. The tough stuff is out of the way, for now. There's a dropoff after Tampa Bay and Carolina, but the Falcons are closing this gap. Michael Boley and Curtis Lofton are very good and getting better. Veteran Keith Brooking is nearing the end of an excellent career and still contributes.

4. Saints. It's somewhat painful to rank New Orleans' linebackers fourth because they'd be a good bit higher in just about any other division. They're the one solid area of this defense. Jonathan Vilma has done what the Saints brought him in to do and Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita are very solid.

All right, let's hand it off to a couple of readers and hear their rankings:

Noah in Lakeland, FL, writes: 1. Bucs. Derrick Brooks is one of the best linebackers to ever play the game, and he provides smarts and veteran leadership. He's also still playing at a high level. Barret Ruud is one of the best at his position, and is the QB of one of the leagues best defenses. Cato June is an underrated playmaker that plays well in the Bucs system. All three are very disciplined and don't make mistakes. 2. Carolina. It's hard to say who's playing middle linebacker better, Jon Beason or Barret Ruud. Beason is the more athletic of the two. Thomas Davis is also an athletic linebacker and Na'il Diggs is very solid. 3. Atlanta. They have a good veteran in Keith Brooking and two promising youngsters in Michael Boley & Curtis lofton. 4. New Orleans. Vilma is probably the best all-around linebacker in the division. While the New Orleans linebackers do all that they are asked, they aren't exactly playmakers. If they can start helping out the weak secondary by making some plays in the passing game, they would be ranked higher.

Waylon in Wilmington, NC, writes: I will first say this, the NFC South has the best all around defense in the NFL. But getting to the NFC South. I put the Carolina Panthers on top of the division with their linebackers. You just are not going to top Jon (the beast) Beason along with Thomas Davis and Na'il Diggs. They are by far the best in the division if not one of the best in the NFL. I put New Orleans linebackers second in the division mainly because of Vilma. He is absolutely dangerous. Third I put Tampa Bays boys. Barrett Ruud is going to be a force to reckon with within the next couple years. And last is the boys from Atlanta. Just because I am putting them fourth doesnt mean Im downing them. They do have a solid defense but when compared to the rest of the divsion I think that they are last.

Thanks to Noah and Waylon and thanks to all those who sent their thoughts to the mailbag. As I said earlier, stay tuned at 6 p.m. and we'll hear what Matt Williamson has to say.

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

It might go overlooked by the casual fan, but Tampa Bay's interior offensive line is paying great dividends -- and deserves mention as the NFL's best. Centers and guards who are drafted by the middle of the second round rarely fail to pan out, which is holding true for center Jeff Faine, left guard Arron Sears and right guard Davin Joseph.

If you're wondering how a backfield of Earnest Graham (a former undrafted free agent) and Warrick Dunn (age 33) can place the Buccaneers among the league's top 10 in rushing yards per game (130.4) and per carry (4.5), look no further than the above trio. Faine, Sears and Joseph also have helped keep Tampa Bay among the league leaders in sack rate, despite providing protection for two very different quarterbacks. It wasn't reflected in the Bucs' rushing totals Sunday, but the line utterly dominated the Seahawks' defensive front, allowing Jeff Garcia to throw for 310 yards and helping the offense maintain possession for nearly 42 minutes.

Everything starts with the interior threesome. The Bucs' offensive tackles aren't nearly as talented or productive, but the team is able to give them a lot of help from tight ends and running backs because the blocking inside is so solid. Coach Jon Gruden uses a lot of multiple-tight end sets (especially near the goal line), often double-teaming defensive ends on run and pass plays. The entire offensive line is very rugged and takes the approach of putting opponents on their backs on every snap.

Faine, the league's highest-paid center, has proved to be worth every penny the Bucs spent on him in free agency in the offseason. Though undersized, Faine is very smart and makes not only the line calls but recognizes the second and third level as part of his protection-calling assignments. He lacks overpowering bulk, but his technique is very good. He gets low, uses his hands effectively and takes sound blocking angles. He is especially effective on combination blocks, using his agility and athleticism to wall off or bury smaller defenders on the second level. Because he can pinpoint and hit a target upfield, Faine is a big reason why the Bucs can use more man blocking schemes.

The guards, though much bigger than Faine, aren't liabilities in space. Finally healthy, Joseph is proving to be the best player among this trio -- and possibly one of the top three guards in this league. He is a solid technique player (which has been especially evident since Faine's arrival), but his physical gifts are even more impressive. Joseph is extremely powerful, quick and plays with excellent leverage. He has the natural ability to bend his knees and hit on the rise. He's nasty too. Sears is a converted college tackle who has been a bit of a project, but his short pulls are devastating. Running to the right behind a Faine/Joseph double-team, with one of them working up to the second level and Sears coming around on a short pull is as close to money in the bank as you can get in the NFL. The Bucs consistently convert in short-yardage situations and pop four yards on first down on such plays.

The scary thing is, for Faine (27), Joseph (24) and Sears (23) the best seems to be yet to come. The combination of this trio's physical ability and tenacity gives the Bucs exceptional play-calling flexibility and separates them from the rest of the NFL's interior units.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Doug Kretz

With Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith back from suspension, no one is happier than fellow wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Panthers' ground game appears stronger than it has at any time since 2003, running back Stephen Davis' last season with the club. And it took all of one game with Smith back in the fold to get the passing game hitting on all cylinders.

It's no coincidence that Delhomme's only touchdown pass over the first three games went to a tight end -- nor is it coincidence that he delivered two to perimeter targets (one each to Smith and Muhammad) upon Smith's return last week. Smith and Muhammad complement each other well, and their presence is important because the quality of Delhomme's weapons drop off significantly from there. Since 2004, the end of Muhammad's first tour in Carolina, Smith had been the team's only legitimate downfield threat and was more easily contained by rolled coverages (a corner with safety help over the top). The reacquisition of Muhammad forces opponents to respect the threat on the other side of the field, and Smith does the same for Muhammad.

Muhammad lacks Smith's top-end speed, but he's very physical, especially in a crowd. He's also sure-handed and runs precise routes, which can be extremely helpful to Delhomme when Smith is contained or the pass rush breaks through. Many NFL passing schemes require a quarterback to go through a progression to find an open target, and the passer wastes precious moments looking for a receiver who isn't in the exact spot he should be on a particular route. And because he knows exactly where Muhammad will be, Delhomme now has a safety valve he can depend on when all else fails.

The resurgence of Carolina's run game has only enhanced Delhomme's effectiveness. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart give the team two quality rushers who can pound the ball and move the chains. Williams has more elusiveness and lateral range, but Stewart is a punisher with more raw power. Both have the speed to go the distance after getting past the first level of defense. Most importantly, both show patience, read blocks well and locate run lanes -- crucial tools for runners in a power zone blocking scheme. Stewart is a reliable enough receiver, but Williams plays more in obvious passing situations because he's experienced and quicker to react in blitz pickups.

In a perfect world, offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson would maintain a 50/50 run/pass ratio, and through four games the Panthers are pretty close. An effective run game allows Davidson, rather than the down and distance, to dictate his play calling. Defenses are constantly analyzing the tendencies and anticipating the moves of offenses, so when Carolina opponents have no better odds than a coin flip when guessing run or pass, it's always risky for them to load up one way or the other.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd

There is never a good time for the Saints to lose a player the caliber of defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, but this could possibly be the worst time.

Ellis will miss up to four weeks after undergoing surgery on his right knee Friday, only days before New Orleans takes on running back Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings. Worse, the Saints are entering a stretch in which they face four of the league's top seven rushing offenses over the next six weeks.

And make no mistake about it, Saints opponents will run the ball early and often because the best way to slow quarterback Drew Brees and New Orleans' offense is to strand them on the sideline. Few NFL teams have a more effective run game than the Vikings (141.2 yards per game, sixth in the league), and Peterson will be especially dangerous on Monday night. He loves to run left behind left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who is returning to the lineup following a suspension, and left guard Steve Hutchinson, who will enjoy a big mismatch against Ellis' replacements.

Saints defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs didn't rotate his interior linemen much last week, but it's uncertain whether undersized former starting defensive Brian Young can handle three-down duty like Ellis did. Instead, Gibbs may use a combination of defensive tackle Antwan Lake on run downs and Young on passing downs. Still, that duo can't come close to filling Ellis' shoes.

Ellis was a force against both the run and pass, but opponents now have some flexibility to target Lake (a marginal pass rusher) and Young (vulnerable against the run) with their play calling. And because Gibbs' one-gap scheme requires the tackles to expend a lot of energy creating upfield penetration, the blow to the Saints' depth at the position could be crushing, especially given the matchups on the horizon.

The Saints' pass defense could also takes a huge hit. It's unlikely we'll see anything resembling Week 4's six-sack performance while Ellis is on the shelf. Defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith won't face nearly as much single blocking on the edge without Ellis in the lineup to draw extra attention inside. It also affects the back end. Without Ellis, the Saints could be forced to either put a safety in the box to stop the run or blitz in passing situations to get pressure on the QB. Either way, the cornerbacks will be left in single coverage, which is definitely not their strength. The Saints better find a way to get to the QB in passing situations and fast, or there could be big plays downfield in the passing game for their opponents.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Tag Ribary

The Panthers are in better shape than most people realize. Left guard Travelle Wharton is experienced at left tackle and will be able to switch back quickly and fill in for injured left tackle Jordan Gross without a drastic impact. In fact, I don't see this as a major blow to Carolina.

Gross is a little more athletic, but Wharton has a strong lower body, can set his feet better and is a little more stout versus a power rusher. He also has as much experience at left tackle as anyone on the Panthers and it wouldn't even surprise me if Wharton has already practiced taking reps from left tackle, just as an injury precaution.

Plus, Wharton is familiar with the Panthers' offensive scheme. The only difference is that he will be on the outside instead of the inside when he is reacting to the stunts, twists, shifts, etc. up front.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC SOUTH SCOREBOARD